Computing That Serves

Social Robots and Human Social Development


Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 10:00am


Brian Scassellati
Associate Professor of Computer Science, Yale University

Social robots recognize and respond to human social cues with appropriate behaviors. These robots are unique tools in the study of human social development, and have the potential to play a critical role in the diagnosis and treatment of social disorders such as autism. In the first part of this talk, I present four examples of what building social robots has taught us about human social development. These examples cover topics of perceptual development (vocal prosody), sensorimotor development (declarative and imperative pointing), linguistic development (learning pronouns), and cognitive development (self-other discrimination). The second half will focus on the application of social robots to the diagnosis and therapy of autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that is characterized by social and communicative impairments. Based on five years of integration and immersion with a clinical research group which performs more than 130 diagnostic evaluations of children for autism per year, I will discuss how social robots will impact the ways in which we diagnose, treat, and understand autism.


Brian Scassellati is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Yale University.  His research focuses on the construction of humanoid robots that interact with people using natural social cues.  These robots are used both to evaluate models of how infants acquire social skills and to assist in the diagnosis and quantification of disorders of social development (such as autism).  His other research interests include active vision systems, visual-motor coordination, developmental models, social learning (imitation and mimicry), and applications of robotics as a tool for cognitive science.  Dr. Scassellati received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001.  His dissertation work (Foundations for a Theory of Mind for a Humanoid Robot) with Rodney Brooks used models drawn from developmental psychology to build a primitive system for allowing robots to understand people.  His work at MIT focused mainly on two well-known humanoid robots named Cog and Kismet.  He also holds a Master of Engineering in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (1995), and Bachelors degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (1995) and Brain and Cognitive Science (1995), all from MIT.